The Untold Truth Of America's Next Top Model

When a show has been on the air for more than 15 years, you know there's gotta be some juicy behind-the-scenes stories just waiting to be discovered — and when that show is a reality competition filled with young models and helmed by model mama Tyra Banks, those stories are guaranteed to be good. 

Such is the case with "America's Next Top Model" ("ANTM"), the long-running series created and produced by Banks herself. Over the course of more than 20 cycles, the show has amassed its fair share of untold truths. 

Wonder what happens to contestants after they're kicked off? Curious about what it's really like working with Tyra? Keep reading to find out a few of the little-known experiences that have shaped the show into what it is today. 

There is 'such a stigma' around ANTM in Hollywood

While various contestants have enjoyed success after their time on "ANTM," arguably no contestant has turned out to be a bigger success than Cycle 3's Yaya DaCosta. The Brown University grad parlayed her modeling into a thriving acting career, landing roles on "All My Children," "Ugly Betty," and "Chicago Med." She even starred as Whitney Houston in a Lifetime biopic about the iconic singer's life. Unfortunately, DaCosta says her "ANTM" cred didn't exactly do her any favors. 

"There was such a stigma in Hollywood, and people don't realize that," DaCosta told Complex in 2016. "The very directors and writers that were hiring me had just gotten their shows denied by a network because a new reality show was taking up that time slot, so the stigma didn't just have to do with being a model, it was reality TV in general. You didn't talk about it. It wasn't on your résumé."

DaCosta said it's such an issue that her producers from "Take the Lead" and "Honeydripper" later told her that they wouldn't even have hired her if they'd known about her "ANTM" past. 

Tyra really was rooting for Tiffany Richardson

Even fair-weather fans of "ANTM" are likely familiar with the most famous pop culture moment to come from the series: the "rooting for you" meme. In it, an emotional Tyra Banks yells at Cycle 4's Tiffany Richardson, "I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you!" Although it would be easy to imagine Banks and Richardson washed their hands of each other for good after the fact, the former contestant says they're actually cool. 

"It makes me feel bad watching it," Richardson told ThoughtCo. in April of 2017. "I'm like, 'I was hurting this lady bad.' Some people say she was acting. But some people say, 'Tiffany, you were being mean.' But me and Tyra know. We've talked since. Tyra yelled at me because she loved some Tiffany." 

In December of 2017, Banks essentially backed Richardson's account of events, telling BuzzFeed News, "It was such an emotional, visceral moment for me. I had so much love for this girl." 

Tyra Banks tried to quit after Cycle 8

In 2016, show host-slash-creator Tyra Banks shocked fans by leaving "America's Next Top Model" and tapping Rita Ora as her replacement. However, if Banks had her way, she would have left long before then — as in, a decade before. 

"It wasn't that hard," Banks told Entertainment Weekly of the decision to pass the torch to Ora. "Many years ago, I was stressed with starting new businesses ... I went to [my lawyer] and I was like, you know what, I'm ready to bring someone else in. I won't say the name of the person, but I actually brought a different person to the network, met with them, and said, 'This is the person I want to take the reins of this show.' This was cycle 8." 

Cycle 8, y'all! That means Banks tried to quit the series for the first time in 2007. 

Not-so-'model' neighbors

Regardless of which "America's Next Top Model" contestants fans wind up pulling for each season, there is one constant that never wavers: how much house-envy "ANTM" causes its audience at home. Impeccably appointed lofts, condos, and penthouse apartments maxed out with every modern amenity? Yes, please. Unfortunately, the models haven't always treated the digs that Banks has provided with the hero worship they deserve.

In 2008, reports surfaced that the contestants from Cycle 10 of "America's Next Top Model" had made a major mess of the upscale Manhattan loft they'd been calling home. In fact, the precise word two non-ANTM residents of 39 Lispenard Street used when describing the damage to TMZ was "trashed." The CW network (on which the show aired at the time) and Tyra Banks' rep both declined to comment when contacted by TMZ about the "serious" problems with the contestant's house guest behavior. 

The contestants don't have access to Tyra often

While Tyra Banks often refers to herself as "mama" to the models on the show, the reality is that she is a super-busy entrepreneur who doesn't have a ton of time to kick it with contestants.

In describing what it was like to work with the model magnate, Cycle 9's Sarah Hartshorne explained to Bustle, "I only saw her once a week, and there were a lot of us and only one of her, but she was always very nice and insanely knowledgeable about basically everything."

Angelea Preston was admittedly jaded after winning Cycle 17 of the show — only to have her title stripped away when producers found she formerly worked as an escort. However, she does corroborate Hartshorne's depiction of Banks being absent. 

"Tyra was non-existent," Preston told The Daily Mail. "The only time we saw Tyra was at panel. Tyra never came in to talk to us personally. When the cameras stopped rolling, it's like she's a stranger." Since she went on to (unsuccessfully) sue Banks for $3 million, Preston's narrative may be a bit biased, but still. 

The ANTM contestants can't leave after being kicked off

It's always so sad when an "America's Next Top Model" contestant gets the boot, right? And if you felt bad for them before, prepare to feel even worse. It's pity-worthy enough that the models have to leave the swanky communal pad when they get voted off — but then they can't even go home.

In a Reddit AMA session (or "Ask Me Anything"), Cycle 12 contestant Allison Harvard opened up about how eliminations play out. When asked what happens after they're shown the door, Harvard confessed the contestants are sent to a hotel. 

"The stay was determined by the time of elimination," she said. "Sometimes a girl would stay there for a few weeks (if she was eliminated early on) and other times only a few days."

That electronics ban is no joke

"We had no TV, internet, or phones," Cycle 13's Erin Wagner revealed during her own Reddit thread. She went on to say that the limited phone time was her "least favourite part" of filming the entire show. But that's not all. Apparently, the electronics ban could have been partially motivated by the fact that the contestants get mic'ed in the morning. (Contestants are allowed limited time in a "phone booth.")

"The first thing we did when we woke up was get a microphone put on. Whenever we were waiting for challenges and such, we couldn't talk in the limo, and when the cameramen were on break or went home for the night, we just had to read or something silently," Wagner said. Obviously, producers didn't want to miss anything dramatic. And, if you think about it, they probably didn't want to listen to hours' worth of contestants' phone calls home. 

A warped, sorting-hat-style ceremony

Sometimes, learning what goes on behind-the-scenes of your favorite shows is fun. Then there are times like this, when such a revelation makes you wish you'd never peeked behind the proverbial curtain.

During a Reddit AMA session, Cycle 16 contestant Sara Longoria shed light on how the casting process on "America's Next Top Model" unfolds, saying, "During casting week, they separate us by type: 'blonde athletic,' 'Latinas,' 'exotic and edgy,' etc. It was easy to figure it out when they stood me in a line with all the tattooed, short hair girls." Longoria also noted, "I was a naïve 18 year old and even I knew I was just a 'quirky, androgynous, token gay filler' for the cycle." Yikes. 

The show inspired Tyra to hit the books ... hard

Each cycle of "ANTM" has a theme, and Cycle 19's turned out to be the "college edition" — the 13 women competing were all students pursuing higher education. By Tyra Banks' own admission, the season and her own experience with higher education were intrinsically linked. When asked by TV Guide whether there was a tie-in between the cycle and her stint at Harvard, the boss model replied, "A hundred percent."

The fact that so many young women regret dropping out of school or not enrolling in college gave Banks the idea for the college edition of "America's Next Top Model." And, in the meantime, she completed the business school's Executive Education Owner/President Management Program (OPM) at Harvard. The program's director, Jacqueline Baugher, told The Harvard Crimson that it typically attracts "presidents and CEOs of companies with sales from anywhere between five million to several billion dollars."

In 2012, Banks shared a Twitter photo of herself "smiling ear2ear on the Harvard Business School campus" with her program diploma. 

The models aren't the only ones with alter-egos

Raise your hand if you live for the makeover day each cycle! From blond to brunette, redheaded to silver, flowing locks to buzz-cuts, the "America's Next Top Model" contestants go into the day one way and come out another. It's invigorating. Well, at least for the audience. 

Some seasons, Tyra Banks even has the models come up with an alter ego to go along with their new look — a name that suits their fresh, fierce personas. What fans may not know is that Banks created an alter ego for herself when the show started. 

"On 'Top Model' I created a character and unfortunately her name is 'Tyra'," she told TV Guide in 2011. "So people think that it's me. And it's totally not. But in Cycle 19 I'm going to return to who I am as a human being, which is more like my talk show. My talk show is just me." ("The Tyra Banks Show" aired from 2005 to 2010). 

Miss J was not fired, y'all — get it right

No one was ready when, heading into Cycle 19, three longtime members of the "America's Next Top Model" family were let go: photographer Nigel Barker, creative director Jay Manuel (aka Mr. Jay), and runway coach J. Alexander (aka Miss J). 

At the time, Banks tweeted out "fierce & love" to the trio, but it didn't prevent the ensuing fan backlash. Nor did it prevent nearly every outlet from reporting that all three had been fired.

However, in 2016, Miss J cleared up that misconception during an interview with Perez Hilton. "Listen, I was never fired. Get the record straight," he told Hilton, adding with a laugh, "I'm just sayin'. My contract was just not renewed."

And you thought your work day was long

Life must be pretty sweet for "America's Next Top Model" contestants. They get to hang out with Tyra Banks, lounge around in a super luxurious house, travel to exotic places — what could they possibly have to complain about? Only, life isn't quite as carefree as one might imagine.

During an interview with BuzzFeed News, Cycle 20 contestant Don Benjamin shed light on a real day-in-the-life for the "ANTM" hopefuls. "Oh my God, we were there for like 13 hours at least every day," Benjamin said. "We'd get up at five in the morning, get home at midnight." 

Cycle 20's Mike Scocozza backed this assertion, stating, "They make it seem like it was so quick, but really it was just all of us hanging around all day." 

Confessionals are NOT optional

If you've ever wondered why "America's Next Top Model" contestants even do the confessionals — which are practically guaranteed to cause drama — the answer is easy: they don't have a choice.

"I think we did 20 or 30 minutes a night, everybody," Cycle 20's Don Benjamin told BuzzFeed News. "They hardly used any of that footage," contestant Mike Scocozza added. "I'm sure there's some really good stuff on there."

Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't loopholes. Cycle 13's Erin Wagner found a way to rebel, telling a Reddit AMA forum, "For about a week, I refused to do my confessionals. I just sat in that little room with the camera and talked about my lunch and such, because I was bored with what was happening and I probably wanted to be difficult and not give them anything to use."

The judges aren't privy to house drama

Fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone — who rounded out the judges' panel for four "America's Next Top Model" cycles, ending with Cycle 21 — offered to let Reddit pick her brain in 2015 about the experience. In typical Cutrone fashion, she was unflinchingly honest, making her one heck of an interview subject. 

So when asked whether or not the judges have any interaction with the models off-screen, you could basically hear fans holding their breath for one particular bit of intel: whether or not the judges watch footage of the models in the house in-between judging panels.

"No, we don't," Cutrone said, elaborating, "I mean, we see them, you know, on challenges only, and we don't even really get any updates on what's happening in the house, you know. We only see them when we are doing challenges, like we see them at photoshoots, and they are actually really discouraged from trying to chat up the judges, as you can imagine."  

The models weren't paid

Sadly, low pay is something many aspiring models have to deal with. However, you might assume that stars of a hit TV show like "America's Next Top Model" would be treated better. It seems only fair that the contestants be paid for any time they took off work and the long hours they spent going through rigorous competitions each episode. However, show alum Sarah Hartshorne of Cycle 9 told The New York Post that the contestants "were not paid at all for being on the show." Explaining further, she said, "We were given a $38 daily cash stipend that we had to use to pay for our own food." She also claimed they didn't even have a microwave to heat that food up.

In a tweet further discussing payment, Hartshorne clarified that the contestants also didn't get any residuals from the episodes. Hartshorne's tweet got a lot of attention, with one Twitter user replying, "Tyra sending girls home with a shaved head, failed dreams, and $40."

Many were upset by the claims that contestants weren't paid for their time on the show. Especially because Forbes estimated Tyra Banks made around $30 million between 2008 and 2009 from "ANTM" and her other television appearances. Another Twitter user responded, saying, "There's no justification for intentionally traumatizing and triggering young women for millions of dollars. I don't care what they signed or 'consented' to."

Former contestant Sarah Hartshorne opened up about traumatic ANTM experiences

Sarah Hartshorne's criticism of "America's Next Top Model" didn't end with the pay. After leaving the show, Hartshorne went on to be a successful plus-size model who worked with Glamour, Vogue, and Skechers, among other brands. But she has since retired from modeling, and instead focuses on comedy and writing. Hartshorne has also been one of the most vocal former contestants to come forward about poor treatment on the show.

In a TikTok quoted by Elle, Hartshorne explained that many models didn't speak out about the show because they all signed an NDA. She said they were told if they said anything about production, they could "get sued for $10 million dollars," even adding that they threatened to "keep suing you until we get that money." But Hartshorne decided not to let those threats control her. She has alleged that production did bag searches and controlled their food. She also claimed models were pressured into "showering together."

The shared experience did help some of the cast members to bond. In a TikTok video she made about her relationship with the other models, Hartshorne said filming the series was "like being at a traumatic sleepaway camp." Though she didn't want to speak for the other contestants' experiences, she said they almost all follow each other on social media, and she is "just rooting for all of them ... I just want them to be successful in all the areas of their life," Hartshorne said.

Models went through psychological tests before living in the house

If you've watched any episodes of "America's Next Top Model," you know that the contestants are put through challenging — and, at times, ridiculous — tasks for each photoshoot. Whether they're walking a conveyer belt runway, balancing candles on their heads (in culturally insensitive costumes), or dodging lasers, these models are constantly put to the test. And according to "ANTM" alum Matthew Stephen Smith, they're tested before the show even begins.

Smith appeared in Cycle 21 of "ANTM," and as he told Hollywood PQ, by the time he was on the show, they had casting down to a science. "There were something like 40 or 50 thousand submissions this year, and then they brought it down to the final 34 people, and every one of the 34 models was more than capable of being in the show," Smith said. Once those 34 models were selected, they went through a series of tests that had nothing to do with modeling. "The whole week before you live in the house, it's just psychology tests for hours, and meeting with psychologists and counselors, breaking you down and figuring out what type of personality you have," Smith said. "They knew stuff about the combination of our cast before we even knew it."

Rewatching old episodes has led to a backlash against ANTM

Although the show aired its last season in 2018, recently, there's been a public outcry against Tyra Banks and other ANTM producers. The reality TV show was quite popular in the early 2000s, but with the show becoming available for streaming, many fans found their former guilty pleasure had some troubling moments. In May 2020, clips from the show started going viral as viewers were shocked by problematic content.

One Twitter user shared a clip of Banks advising a gay contestant to tone down her pride, saying, "I'm black and proud ... but I'm not, like, walking down the red carpet [saying] 'I'm black, I'm black.'" In another viral clip, the judges criticized a contestant for refusing to have the gap in her teeth closed.

Even more troubling were the show's racially insensitive photoshoots. Vox cited two episodes, one in Cycle 4 and one in Cycle 13, in which makeup artists darkened the contestants' skin to make them look like a different race. Tyra did apologize for this in an episode of "The Tyra Banks Show." According to NBC Washington, she said, "I'm sorry to anybody that watched 'Top Model' and was offended by the pictures because they didn't understand the real story behind them or even if you did see the whole episode and you were still offended, I truly apologize because that is not my intention."

Risking lives for ratings?

Business Insider interviewed former cast and crew members from to get a closer look at what happened behind the scenes on "ANTM." In each episode, contestants had new tasks to prove their modeling skills, but the producers often took these challenges to an extreme and dangerous level.

In one such challenge during Cycle 7, the models had to walk across a thin runway over a pool. The wood planks on which the catwalk was built also rocked from side to side, and the contestants had to try not to fall while walking in 6-inch heels. Unfortunately, Eugena Washington did fall and hit her knee hard on her landing. "I felt like my life was being put on the line for ratings," Washington said. It seems the former contestant may be right that the show put drama above the model's safety. One producer, who remained anonymous, told Business Insider that they had loosened the bolts on the runway to make it even more wobbly.

This kind of task, and models falling as a consequence, was quite typical in episodes of "ANTM." In a similar challenge during Cycle 16, Hannah Kat Jones said none of the models fell in the water the first time they walked the runway. But, instead of being happy they succeeded, the show had them do the challenge again until one of them did. Andrew Patterson, who worked on the show's photoshoots, said producers liked to include an "'element of fear" in the shoots.

Minimal representation of plus-size models

"America's Next Top Model" has always included models of different races and ethnicities. However, one group that has notably lacked representation on the show and in the fashion industry as a whole is plus-size models. Although "ANTM" was open to curve models, most years had very few in the lineup, and in its 24-season run, Whitney Thompson was the only plus-size model to win.

Many viewers were disappointed in Cycle 23 when there wasn't one curve model, despite plus-size model Ashley Graham serving as a judge that season. In a since-deleted Instagram post, actress Danielle Brooks criticized the show, saying, "Out of all 28 girls not one was plus ... when 67% of women are plus in the U.S.??" (via Mic). 

Along with the lack of representation, many curve models on the show have been treated poorly. Toccara Jones was a plus-size model on Cycle 3. During one photoshoot, Jones was put in a boxy, button-down shirt and khaki pants, while the straight-sized contestants were dressed in high fashion. When Jones complained about her wardrobe, the stylist pointed to the more elegant clothes and said, "Do you think that I'm going to be able to get a rack like this loaded with clothes in your size?" Later, in the same episode, judge Janice Dickinson said if Jones were to "slim down 150 pounds, that would be good."

Why this ANTM model was stripped of her title

Angelea Preston was crowned winner of "ANTM" Cycle 17, but her victory episode never aired. Instead, the last few scenes were reshot months later with the title given to the runner-up Lisa D'Amato. Cycle 17 was an all-star season featuring returning models from past cycles, and Preston had been on Cycle 14. But, as she told the Daily Mail, that exposure didn't boost her modeling career as she'd hoped. "I was in a big city and it was just rejection on top of rejection on top of rejection. I couldn't book a job to save my life," Preston said. "It was very hard. You have these 15 minutes of fame but you can't capitalize on them." To get by, the model took work as an escort. She told Daily Mail it was something she turned to out of desperation, and barely did it for a month. "I had to survive. I had no money. I had no income," Preston said.

According to Preston, "ANTM" was aware of her past work before booking her for Cycle 17. She competed on the show and won. But, months later, she was stripped of the title because they decided they couldn't have a former escort as the winner. "They preach to girls you can come from anywhere and you can be successful but that's not true. Look at what happened to me. Girls like me don't have a chance," Preston said.

Adrianne Curry never got promised rewards for winning ANTM

Adrianne Curry was the Cycle 1 winner of "America's Next Top Model." Sadly, coming out "on top" didn't turn out to be what she'd expected. In a since-deleted blog post, quoted by Life and Style Magazine, Curry claimed she'd been misled about the show's prizes. According to Curry, the winner was promised a contract with Revlon and Wilhelmina. "When I met with Revlon, they informed me they never planned on using the winner, whoever she may be, for any ads. They hired me for $15k to model makeup in a room with 10 execs in it to honor said contract," Curry wrote. She added that she never received the $15k. Her contract with Wilhelmina was also in jeopardy when "ANTM" signed a contract with IMG Models (a rival agency.)

Curry explained that she then went on VH1's "The Surreal Life," partially to get back at "Top Model." "I purposely got wasted and skinny dipped. I took joy in knowing it would bother people," she said. "I took every opportunity to let press know I was never paid or given my prize. I'd talk s**t about Tyra just to do it." However, Curry added that's not how she would handle things now. "I was a kid. My anger was a thin mask for my broken heart."